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A/N: Any non-divided italicized portions within the texts can be considered to be either a reference to something else or a direct quote, modified for Equestrian usage.
“The moon’s my constant mistress/ And the lowly owl my morrow/ The flaming drake and the nightcrow make/ Me music to my sorrow.”* Bad Apple sang cheerfully as he strolled along the path north of most of the regular habitations of Equestria. He was high in the northern latitudes of the land, along a similar line, if slightly higher, than the city of Stalliongrad. There wasn’t much up there, to be sure. Barely any maps listed it, and the rivers had their headwaters near the area. The mystery, the blankness, it all drew the adventure-seeking pony. Surely no space in Equestria could be truly a void. “Still I sing bonnie…” The song ended abruptly as he saw something… The sky was darker than it should have been, and it smelled strongly of sulfurous smoke. That wasn’t right. There was no general indication of heavy industry. He would have known about it. He was near some mountains, however, and that reminded him of the accursed book. A blank northern nothing fitted with improbable heavy industry by the mountains. It was good enough to draw him on.
The path seemed to vanish, yet still continued, a cunning attempt at hiding a hoof-path opened up like a dissected figure before his canny eyes. It was in no sense a main heavy-product artery to wherever it terminated; most likely he had located a secondary entrance that was meant to be walked by those leaving the main terminus for whatever they may need. It would be far less conspicuous than drawing attention to the heavy goods path. Mountains, a hidden path, and the stink of unregulated industry. The nightmare had at last come true. Some madpony had finally done the unthinkable. And he was there to find it, as he always knew he would be.
The path wended its way between slowly-increasing mountains. The imposing rises of stone would have intimidated the average pony, but he always expected just such a thing. He was prepared for the surroundings. The end of the path spilled out at the top of an overlook. He looked down on a scene that had never existed before, save in his nightmares and in the pages of books that he had assumed were merely nightmares pulped and bound. A sprawling industrial complex of smoke-belching factories, a honeycomb of mines, squat gray residences, a small line of walled compounds looking like manors, and a gargantuan skyscraper stabbing into the sky, though still protected from view by the surrounding mountains. He couldn’t see everything but could well guess what he was missing, likely a major rail depot somewhere behind some of the further mountains and an airfield in a similar location.
Bad Apple made his way slowly down the trail from the overlook. It appeared to lead down to the front of the gargantuan valley, near the large factories. As he went he took a hooded bluish cloak from his pack and put it on. He slid the hood up and checked his field of vision, ensuring it was still somewhat broad. He’d need to see every last detail.
At the bottom of the trail he was met with the looming sight of a tremendous stone edifice. He had seen them before, of course. Such things were perched comfortably and harmoniously well outside of places such as Fillydelphia, Las Pegasus, Chicacolt, even Manehattan. Cloudsdale was practically built around those made of cloud. It was a huge example of an industrial center, some kind of fabrication plant or possibly an ore processing center. The place looked pretty imposing, with barred windows, where they could be found, and warning signs indicating the requirement that employees remain productive at all times. But as well, there was a single sign of a Deco-styled unicorn in silhouette, joined by the words, “A pony chooses; a slave obeys.”
He approached one of the side doors, which was marked as a delivery area. Using the metal wires in his black lace he picked the lock on it and gingerly opened it up, sliding inside with a glance around the area.
Immediately the air was filled with an industrial tumult, rhythmic thuds and clangs echoing around the place while machinery chugged away and various kinds of whistles screeched out on their own schedules. He had emerged into a small loading area, for the delivery of smaller materials. There was a small corridor that led into the facility as well as a ladder that went upwards towards what looked like a catwalk or scaffolding which ran above the whole lower level of the complex. He chose to climb the ladder, smoothly traversing what would, for most ponies, be a challenging bit of equipment.
At the top of the ladder was a service tunnel, probably for the examination of things from above and maintenance of anything that might be placed high in the complex. It was made of concrete, about the width of the average pony, very dark, with only a faint glowing from around a dogleg deep inside giving any indication of features. He did not hesitate a moment but dived into the musty passage, which was almost chokingly thick with the unfettered sulfurous stink of unrestrained and unfiltered industrial production exhaust.
The walls of the passage were rough, as were the ceiling and ground, allowing for a better grip, but meaning that the cloak he wore took a good amount of friction, scraping its threads to a slight fraying before he wiggled past the dogleg and crawled the short distance out into the hazy light of the upper factory walkway. There the tumult intensified to an almost deafening level, as though trying to make up for the lack of light by filling the atmosphere with noise.
It was, indeed, a large fabrication facility. The specific products were impossible to see if, indeed, only one thing was being manufactured. Given the sprawl of the place there could been any number of production lines being created at once. Light was delivered by small windows and smaller electric lights, as well as the glow from machines and some spots of redder illumination that were almost certainly molten or semi-molten metal being passed through the fabricators. Working at those devices were ponies of all colors, and of both genders. Distressingly, there were also fillies and colts in evidence, performing the exact same tasks as the adults. It may have been a trick of the light, or perhaps a strange quirk of probability, but there seemed to be no variation in the composition of the workforce. It was all earth ponies, not a Pegasus or unicorn to be found.
That thought turned into a memory. All the more elite types had been unicorns, from Dry Gulch to Streamford Grade and on. There were highly-placed pegasi, and some inner-circle earth ponies with especially useful skills. But the echelons of this thing were very stratified by pony race. With zero inclusion of non-ponies. He had absorbed some kind of indication that might be the case from what he had read, but here it was so blatant and pure, it was disgusting. But he should have expected it. He’d seen signs on the path to this place.
“Ugh!” The light pink unicorn mare with a flaming red mane thrashed about beneath the pony that had tackled her, attempting to activate her magic. An iron horn cap slapped down over the offending appendage, secured around her head by deft hooves. “Release me! Get off of me this instant!”
“I think you’ve had quite enough ‘release’ and ‘getting off’ for one lifetime… wow. She’s really rubbing off on me… and there’s another one.” The caramel earth stallion mused lightly as he began to clamp manacles onto the squirming mare. “In any case, as I said a while back, Nightwatch-supported warrant server number 7777 executing a Canterlot-backed arrest warrant for one Morning Star d’Venus. You’re my month’s expenses, and then some.”
“Imagine! The very idea. A strong, handsome stallion like yourself, impeccably styled and so suave and debonair…” Morning licked her lips and winked. “And what do you do with your skills? You arrest innocent mares on false charges! Oh my… unless this is an elaborate game. I must say… I admire your spirit, my handsome buck. I don’t suppose you’ve ever been zebra-painted, have you? Maybe put some feathers in your mane and grunt as I’ve heard the buffs do?”
The manacles were cinched on extra tight, effectively hobbling the haughty unicorn and making her cry out lightly- though with enough delight in there to make it an uncomfortable Pyrrhic victory. “I won’t give you the respect of explaining why that is deeply offensive to me and my family, or why that is just deeply offensive to zebras and buffalos. You, miss Morning Star are going to the dungeons. And if my rumor senses are right, I know one very royal mare that will be glad to see you behind bars.”
“Don’t talk out of your place, peasant!” Morning turned from seductive to petulant in a flash, thrashing in her restriction. “I don’t care if you have a warrant from Canterlot, you’re nothing but a lowly, disgusting peasant. And while I may take all the pleasure I can from you, you’re unworthy to even THINK about courtly matters. I’d spit on you for your insolence if I didn’t think you were unworthy of my noble unicorn saliva!”
“There’s power in a peasant, or rather, a union. Don’t you remember the last time nobles thought they were some better breed, above their lowly peasants, and set so high they could keep the common ponies from Princess Celestia? The ponies of that region of Percheron certainly didn’t enjoy their rulers. The superiority you claim in nobility didn’t last long in those tumbrels, brought to the artful machines designed to sever those nobles from their ridiculous notions and bring the citizenry back into contact and concordance with Canterlot.” Bad Apple grinned broadly and stood up, to watch the helpless mare squirm.
“To think, they lost to a mongrel rabble. They! Unicorns…” Morning muttered angrily to herself with a shake of her head.
“This isn’t Unicornia, and you’re hardly Princess Platinum. Take that unicorn supremacy and stuff it where it belongs, caput catso… she’s really got a hold on me. But that’s a good sign.”
“You and your simple-minded foolishness. It’s not unicorn superiority as you so basely suppose it. It is understanding that unicorns, who manipulate mighty, mystic forces, are more deeply in tune with the universe and open to more cryptic messages and hints, leading to greater intelligence over all. It only means no superior earth pony or superior Pegasus pony will ever be AS superior as a superior unicorn. That’s just the fact of the matter.”
“Keep on telling yourself that while you rot in the dungeons. And not the fun kind you imagine, more like the ones I had to break into. A dank hole with no sunlight is too good for you but compassion is the name of the game in Canterlot.”
Morning’s reply, thick with smug superiority, chilled her arrester to the bone. “That’s why Any Random condemns your second-hoofed parasite morality, and why Vault’s Vale will rule all.”
He was seeing the price of that attitude. Each slaving pony below was an earth pony. And he knew the sorts that listened to the book morals of his ultimate prize thought nothing of putting foals through the wringer of industrial machinery to squeeze every last bit of usable work out of the population. He was staring into the mouth of unstated supremacy, as earth ponies toiled for Pegasus taskmasters under unicorn overlords. It spurred him on, making him take a camera out of his bag. He snapped photos of the working ponies, especially the foals.
In the middle of taking the shots he heard a shriek of agony and dragged the viewfinder over to the source. It was one of the large stamping devices which continued to pound away as machines were wont to do; to the side there writhed an earth pony mare, screaming and holding up a bleeding leg which had been severely crushed in the pressing jaws of it. That deserved a photograph.
Like magic, there were three pegasi on the scene, having their images captured on film for posterity. There wasn’t much in the way of compassion or help for the fallen mare. There seemed to be a great number of admonitions, inducements to return to work, and, finally, the press-ganging of several surrounding ponies into removing the injured mare from the floor. Immediately, her station was taken up by another pony. It was certainly all ‘go’ in the factory. But from what he knew of the place and its intentions, that was hardly a surprise.
With enough pictures, Bad Apple tucked the camera back in his bag and skulked on through the high walkways, headed for a door he could just see at the end. If there was any sense to the place, that door would lead to the roof and to a way to get down to the ground.
As he had suspected, the door exited onto a narrow walkway just below the roof, which wound around the facility, with several ladders attached to the side to allow for easy egress. He took one of those, carefully. The entire place had been built by the lowest bidder with effectively nothing in the way of competition, ensuring the invisible hoof would never come to punish wrongdoing and corner-cutting. Despite that, his hooves finally touched the ground, leaving him in a sheltered spot between the factory and the mountain, still within the factory complexes.
The way into the central living hub, which he had observed from the overlook, was littered with crates and debris, save in places where large transport needed to go. If he dodged around and avoided the direct path, he could make it without observation. A circuitous route through the equivalents of alleys and ducking behind things would take him in the right direction.
The external features of the factories were bland and ordinary. They were perfectly designed, of course, created with an eye to the deco touches with which all his most truculent enemies had favored. But there was hardly anything beyond that. Individual boxes of differently-designed gray stone with few windows and zero indications of what was within. Only at ground level was there anything resembling true individuation. There were riveted metal signs admonishing workers to work hard, not get hurt and not complain. And spread out, frequently, was the poster from before. A unicorn silhouette, deco design, and the blaring words, “A pony chooses; a slave obeys.”
The housing was probably provided as a part of the employment. The most mocking imitation of largesse that could be conceived by the pony mind. It was not a gift. It cost each worker dearly. They had to toil a minimum amount just to afford their little room. Likely, the same could be said for the food they ate and many other things, if they were not paid in some other fashion. They probably never saw bits. He had seen if before.
“Gorge Pullpony.” He had stopped shouting a long time ago, after he knew the arrogant old stallion had heard him. The third dodged bit of debris had told him that. Not bad in the driving rain. “Cease and desist attempting to escape from a duly-authorized server of a Canterlot-backed warrant. I know you saw my badge, Pullpony. You know it’s over.”
“N-no! It’s not over yet! It’s not over! Pucertonnes! PUCERTONNES! Curse your Pegasus hides! I hired you for things like this! Drop something! Attack something! DO SOMETHING!” The slightly-older pale pink unicorn stallion with a graying mane stumbled through the muddy streets of a town that looked like a plywood Appleoosa. His black suit was torn and dirty, and his top hat was barely hanging together on his head. “DO SOMETHING!”
“Your Pucertonnes folded like a rookie player with a hoofful of nothing. One look at my badge and a glance to the warrant and they were on the floor, begging for protection from prosecution. They’ll be singing your dirge once the constables unlock the manacles and put them in the royal pokey. They’ll gladly take all the years they’ll get for confessing to what they did for you and this… what did you call this little slice of Badlands?”
“It’s called a Company Town you mendaciously malefic simpleton! Don’t play at ignorance, it is a simple term. And it is BEAUTIFUL! Imagine it, a unicorn of vision and mastery forging a town by strength and foresight, populating it with eager workers and making it its own self-sustaining and wonderfully productive location!”
“More like mocking a town with thrift and miserliness. The cheapest materials to house the most desperate ponies you could find, slaving away in abject misery for this worthless toilet paper you call scrip!” Bad Apple extracted a sodden mass of paper, throwing it at Gorge’s form. It landed with a wet, pathetic thud in the muddy street.
“That scrip is fully, duly authorized and acceptable legal tender in all locations throughout Pullponyston! It is as good as and better than those nanny-state-backed bits you altruistic, second-hooving takers and parasites use! It is tied to our WORK! Work and might!”
“Thing about a bit is…” Bad Apple pulled a bit from his pouch and flicked it into the air. “If I make a bit, find a bit, borrow a bit, get a bit, I can take that bit from wherever I worked, searched, borrowed or asked, and go to any point in all of Equestria and any bank in the Griffon or Zebra lands.” The bit came down and was deftly caught in the air. “And guess what, Pullpony? That bit spends exactly the same. It turns into candy, hay, shillings, zebraks, what have you. Exactly the same.” The bit was flipped again, with a wicked flick and painfully accurate aim right at Gorge’s face, pinging off his horn hard enough to knock back his head and draw out a cry. “Your chamber-pot-scrubbing funny money is worth just barely the paper it’s printed on one hoof step outside of this little prison.”
“How dare you..!?” Gorge suddenly realized the plan when the iron cap clapped down over his aching horn. Distracted and angered he had been hornswoggled. The manacles were already locking over his legs. “You’re no constable. You’re nothing but a bounty hunter. Why would you serve the state?”
“I’ve been a constable. I served the state impersonally and VERY personally. Why?” The manacles were secured, and Gorged was dragged along the muddy streets. “Because I live in the state. And I’d rather my neighbor serve the state as much as I do so it will still be there when I inevitably need it. And make no mistake, Pullpony, soon or late, everypony needs the state.”
“Needs it, yes…” Gorge slumped, going limp and looking up into the pouring rain. “But in our new world, in the wonderful Vault’s Vale, it will not exist. Separating the truly masterful from the takers. If they cannot surpass, they will be surpassed…”
Leaving the factory complex was easy enough. There was no gate or wall. Just a simple but implicitly sharply-defined line that meant the complex ended and the residences began. It looked, at least, like an ultramodern city, like Fillydelphia or Manehattan. The residences were high and clean, brick and mortar and stone. The sidewalks were concrete and the roads asphalt. It was a whole city of workers, lifted up out of a metropolitan area and planted down in the middle of the mad vale. It even had a central hub, where all the roads met. And in that center, as it had been in Cherrywood Acres, a giant statue of the unburdened Trotlas of Hipposian lore, glaring arrogantly down on the town, back to the grand skyscraper, facing down the factories. Trotlas was watching.
The citizenry wandered through the setting in the most defeated way possible. As at the factory, mostly earth ponies, with the occasional pegasus that had, apparently, been demoted to the status of the earth ponies. It was unusual that any were around at all. All of them were supposed to be at work. The sudden realization of the cause of it all came when Bad Apple saw a pony wearing a bandage on his leg. They looked defeated because they were. In the world of the Vale, they were the walking dead. Nopony was allowed to give them anything and none was allowed to help them. They would slowly starve and die if they could not go back to work.
A sign caught his eye, pasted on a building. It was that accursed unicorn again. Slaves and ponies. More like masters and slaves. It was too much to bear. There were doubtlessly Pegasus enforcers somewhere in the area to quash anything that even smelled of defiance. The thought sent him leaping to the base of Trotlas, hood up on his cloak and forelimbs spread out wide in perfect conpony sweep, the quacksalver special for drawing every eye and turning every head.
“Friends and Equusians I’m your brother, just scratching to hang on, but this pursuit of worthless scrip is just a riverboatman’s con! When some expired spinach mash can change your point of view… well, I may not look it but I have been you. As these masters of the slaves destroy your hopes and dreams inside these cellblock mountains by any given means, you give up on each other as the way to get ahead according to an old mare, just more lies you were fed! Come on you can still reach for the moon and stars! Break out of these company town prison bars!”**
His tongue was as limber as ever, tripping the light fantastic through a pat declaration of solidarity and encouragement. It wasn’t FULLY extemporaneous; he had been considering it since Pullponyston. But some elements of the surroundings had been integrated, and the whole thing was given a beat, a cadence to get ponies to notice. It had worked for the conponies that had nearly cheated his family. He had taught them a valuable lesson when he caught them.
He had drawn an audience, exactly as intended, all the injured ponies slowly trotting up, looking around with great fear. Presumably, even looking at such a transgress figure as himself would be tantamount to disloyalty to the vale. And the disloyal would presumably fare even worse than the injured, weak and sick.
It was truly amazing, how quickly the response came down. The crowd of injured parted with small cries of fear, scrambling into the buildings as the sky was suddenly invaded with a number of pegasi, wearing sharp suits and sunglasses. Unlike Streamford’s enforcers they were of various colors, of both genders, and lacked earpieces. That was ideal. No communication meant slower spread of the alarm.
“Fillies and gentlecolts! Gather ye ‘round, fillies and gentlecolts, and hearken to my words! I see I have an audience, and quite the fancy audience at that! Now now, I don’t discriminate. I am quite happy to talk to the fancy as well as the plain. Roll up, folks and let’s have a chat.”
“Are you stupid or are you just one crazy bucker? Just where did you come from and where do you get off standing here in the middle of this peaceful street yelling your drivel?” A particularly unfriendly-looking red stallion flapped down close to Bad Apple, practically bumping muzzles with him. “You know where you are, don’t you?”
“Well, of course. What do I look like, a Randomoid? I can be aware of my surroundings and act appropriately. That’s exactly why I was down here under the statue of Trotlas calling out the garbage I see when I’m in here. Have you got a problem with my empowered and surpassing will and free speech backed by my powerful mind?” Bad Apple smiled behind his cloak, face still well-hidden. His whole body was well-concealed, in fact, his attire hidden and body by and large disguised.
“Oh you bucking bastard! Just who the hay do you think you are to talk to us like that? Think you’re something, do you? Got that smart mouth on you and a big brain, do ya? You’re still just an earth pony! And even if you have wings under that cloak you’re not better than me. You’re coming with us, stranger!” The other pegasi started to draw in, while the lead reached for Bad Apple.
“’Under’? Not at all. But made of… you might say that.” Bad Apple smiled brightly and tapped hard on the neck of the cloak, breaking a fragile gem and releasing a flash of magic. Instantly the cloak broke apart into a fluttering, surprising cloud of bats that immediately set upon the pegasi interrupting their escape.
With all the pegasi distracted Bad Apple was free to make a run for it, dashing across the square and into one of the housing blocks, his exposed form drawing a dull flash of recognition from one of the pegasi, who lost the pony as she fought off one of the bats repeatedly flying into her face.
The housing block interior was a gilded lily, or more accurately, a polished horse apple. The large lobby-like room inside the entrance had polished marble floors with deco design flourishes, which extended into the metalwork, with geometrical patterns and designs up the walls and even onto the ceilings. The main lobby area split off into three directions, left, right and forward, each path passing doors and ending in small elevator lobbies.
With no good notion of what to do, and in need of a quick exit, Bad Apple dashed to the left and punched the elevator button. It was a very old style of elevator, showing the ossified adoration for the somewhat-disgraced deco design aesthetic. The gate certainly showed a desire for that. It slid across with a rattling clatter and showed off a carpeted interior, carved and polished wooden walls and a decorative ceiling grille. He punched one of the buttons at random and shook his head. This wasn’t how things happened the last time one of those Randomoids became anyhow entangled in the housing of non-elite ponies.
“Damn you!” The body hit the ground, rolling slightly with some clattering of hooves on the polished marble floors. “Stand still and let me end you!” The red unicorn mare attempted to light her horn but found herself unable, for some reason. “What have you done to me?! You miserable second-hoofing wretch!”
“Better a second-hoofer than a murderer. I wish I could say I took your powers away forever. But it’s only temporary. It will last long enough. You may have bought the local constables, but the corruption has been exposed. They’re not going to support you when the outsiders come in to arrest them. You’re going to prison. Forever. Probably the Canterlot dungeons. Never been there, probably never will be. That city is big and dangerous for innocent hucksters like me.” Bad Apple quickly tied a rope around the mare’s leg and then attached it to a heavy wooden table.
“Altruistic scum! Monster! You monster! You’re working for them! For the sneak thieves and hoofpads sitting in their dull-witted offices stealing bits out of my pouches and throwing them into the gluttonous maw of the idiot-class! To fund, of all things, a perversion of architecture stuffed to the gills with poor louts, and donkeys and mules besides..!”
Bad Apple fell upon the mare, hoof held up and trembling, caught in a moral quandary about striking the subdued prisoner. “You… I don’t work for the constables or the state. I serve the state of my own free will, not for the lure of taxed bits. I do it on my own time and my own cost. But that doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if I was a fully-paid agent of Celestia herself, salaried exclusively with bits taken physically from the pouches of the hereditary peers at weapon point. I’d still be above you. I didn’t callously plant fireworks under cover of night and detonate them in such a way as to destroy a housing block while it was full! They all died! Every last one of them..!”
The opening of the door would not have been sufficient to break the reverie of reminiscence, had it not allowed into the elevator box the sound of whimpering and dominating grunting, together with the hard, steady thump and squeak of old bedsprings. And most jarring of all, the weepy repetition of, “No, no, please, no.”
Not far from the open elevator was a door, laying slightly ajar. Just inside the door was revealed the conditions of the living quarters for workers. There was the same over-wrought style within, and bare furniture packed into a small space, with a single small bed occupied by two figures. Lying on the bed was a yellow unicorn mare, surely not one of the more dominating ones, tearfully thrashing beneath a big body. She seemed to have only one leg remaining, a rear one that kicked uselessly at a muscular umber Pegasus, his wings spread dominantly. One particularly well-aimed kick jostled one wing, prompting him to cuff the mare hard across the face, drawing forth more sobs and yelps.
“Shut up!” The Pegasus hissed, face leaned close to the mare. “How dare you do that! I am a powerful mind and will, like Renard Hick. Just like him, I don’t hold regard for what society holds sacred, and have a consciousness all my own. I don’t realize and feel ‘other ponies’, don’t see them as existing for me, and I don’t know why they should.”*** The squeaking resumed while the unicorn sobbed anew, though without fighting any longer.
There were only a few more squeaks, before a heavy thud sounded around the room and the pegasus fell heavily upon the victimized unicorn, filling her field of vision and causing her helpless body to squirm around wildly, her single leg kicking desperately out at random. “What’s happening?! What’s happening?!”
There were a few pulls and jerks of the unconscious body, the heavy lug thudding heavily to the floor. His removal revealed a large, bleeding gash on the back of his head, and Bad Apple, looking down on the unconscious pony with burning contempt. The caramel stallion gave the unconscious stallion a further kick in the side. “May I have some of your bedclothes?”
“My… my what? Who are you?” The yellow unicorn pulled her body up a best as she could, using her single leg to cover the lower part of her body as best she could.
“Sorry. I need a sheet or something similar. He’s not dead. And I’m not willing to just kill the stupid oaf. He needs to be put on trial and shoved in a dank cage for the rest of his life. So I need to tie him, gag him, and shove him somewhere until somepony official comes along to get him for that. Don’t worry, I’ll move you to a different place. I only wish I could help you recover.”
The mare looked at Bad Apple disbelievingly, as though he had just started speaking Zebrian to her. His concepts almost seemed impossible. Eventually, however, she pulled the sheet out from under her with her magic and shivered. “P-please… just… get rid of him. I don’t think you’ll ever get him in a cell. But I want him tied up and thrown away somewhere…”
“Don’t count me out yet. I’ve put bigger monsters than him inside a jail cell. It just takes time and a slippery scoundrel to outflank them.” Bad Apple carefully tore the sheet into strips, twining them together into strong ropes and using them to securely binds the legs of the knocked-out Pegasus and double-silencing him, cloth placed in with mouth and tied in there, his muzzle then tied securely closed. “Any objection to me storing him under your bed? I can take you to any other room you might like.”
“Stuff him there. Jam him in there, and I hope he rots.” The mare spit onto the bound body, glaring daggers at him.
“I like your style. You’ve got some fire in you.” Bad Apple smiled as he unceremoniously shoved the Pegasus under the bed, shoving him hard with a lower hoof. “Don’t worry about somepony being home. I can… finesse the lock. I’m sure they won’t mind you sharing their space. It won’t even be for that long.”
“N-no, no… I can’t. Sharing is forbidden. I’d be punished. And they would too. Crewelwork and Forlorn Hope do not mess around with lawbreakers.”
“I’ve read the books. I know all the rubbish rules. That’s not going to happen. I promise you, nopony will have a chance to punish you.” Bad Apple trotted close to the bed, offering his back to the unicorn for transportation. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Sun Fire.” She writhed and wiggled on the bed, pushing as best she could and using her magic to move the mattress around and work herself onto Bad Apple’s back. “What’s your name?”
“Udan Ibai.” Bad Apple responded, slowly walking his way through the door and closing it securely. “Just to keep things looking normal. Just pick a door.”
“No need to worry. Use the one on the right. They don’t let us have locks on the door. It makes it easier to enforce the rules that they had us agree to under contract.”
“Figures. I told you. I read the books.” He opened the door to show off an entirely identical room, save it looked completely uninhabited. “If I may ask, about your legs…”
“I was a low-level manager at one of the fabrication plants. I was completely inappropriate for the job but I did it anyhow, doing nothing but making mistakes that were blamed on the workers. All because I was a unicorn. Then there was an accident caused by shoddy standards and my own incompetence. I tried to help the workers, but there was just so much debris and burning metal… They punished me with the loss of status, after I fixed my own limbs. If I had left them all to die, I would have been given a slap on the hoof.” Sun slumped on Bad Apple’s back, her body shivering.
“You’re going to go far. Never doubt it.” Bad Apple gently moved Sun over to the bed and gave her a nod. “It was a good thing you did. The right thing you did.”
“I know. It was. That’s why they threw me in here to die.” Sun flopped over onto her side, looking at the wall.
Bad Apple looked back at Sun once, then slowly left the room, closing the door behind him. He made a dash for the elevator and hit the button for the ground floor. The pegasi would be looking or him, but they would have spread their numbers out. And he had plenty of ways to evade the numbskulls peeking in windows and lifting up flowerpots.
Back outside the building, he was right about his presumption. The pegasi were desperately searching external spaces, in reduced numbers, likely meaning the others were inside the buildings. Once more, Bad Apple’s famous luck had let him miss the ones searching the building, if they had even entered the one had had entered.
It was only a small matter of waiting for observation to be shifted away, and he was off, towards the line of high walls protecting the manors meant to hold the mighty ones, the rulers of the complex. His hate blinded him to the approach of a pegasus, who threw him against the wall of an alley, and lifted the back of his coat to get a better look at a his Cutie Mark. “It’s you. Bataud Carp!” The voice was clearly female, a combination of anger and disbelief.
“Cherrywood Acres. Somepony remembered. Not a Civic Prider. No mares in there. And besides, they’re never getting out of prison, not by any means.” Bad Apple showed no fear, and denied nothing. He accepted the hard press against the wall of the alley. He knew the danger always existed. “I’m amazed anypony remembers. Chief Grind rounded up everypony. He was a trusty old lawstallion. Bare barrow indeed. But… best get it over with. What will it be? Neck break? Dropping from a height? Stabbing?”
“You’re not getting off that easily.” The figure turned Bad Apple around and revealed herself. She was light blue, with a leafy green mane, a small collection of greenery and flowers on her flanks. “You could have had the decency to say goodbye to my face. I know you waved me off. Tell me why. Not into pegasi? Was I not pretty enough? A Colt Cuddler?”
“None of the above. And easy on Colt Cuddlers. I’m a close, personal nearly-friend with two. It’s good to see you again, Rosemary. I just had to be on my way. It was better to cut down on the awkwardness. I told you when I was there. I wanted something like that to be organic, not a business transaction.” Bad Apple did a good job of keeping the surprise out of his eyes as he looked over the mare he had not seen in years. “I must admit, I’m surprised. After suffering under the likes of Streamford, you’re in the heart of the madmare that inspired him. Did you twist your psychology to want to be like him?”
“Never! That bastard stole part of my life. All our lives. I’m here for the exact opposite reason. I came here to find some way to undermine the place, destroy it, destabilize it, something. Something that would make a difference.”
“I admire your spirit, but doubt it would be that effective. How long have you been here?”
“A few months now. I happened to meet somepony who knew what happened at Cherrywood so I played up my outrage at the arrest. Turns out they were recruiting pegasi as enforcers. I told a little fib about studying with the Civic Pride ponies. Guess they didn’t know it was all male. I could spout all the garbage from memory, and that was what mattered. I’ve actually got access privileges to the main facility. Nothing too big but it’s something. I’m guessing there’s better evidence in the floors above forty. It looks like offices and drone tasks below that.”
Bad Apple considered Rosemary for a while, stroking his chin with a hoof. “I need to get in there. I’m gathering up my own evidence. I don’t mind getting caught but I just need to get there first.”
“I could get you to the skyscraper and give you my access pendant. It seems like the least I could do, though given security and all that you’ll find in there, it seems more like I’m condemning you to death.”
“I don’t fall that easily, as you probably noticed. I’ve got all I need to get the evidence out of there and into the right hooves. I just need a chance to bring this place down. It’s been a nightmare in my skull for a long time. I didn’t actually think it would exist. Now that I know it does, time to make it a memory again.”
Rosemary nodded and offered her back. “I’ll do it then. Hop on, lie low and keep quiet.” She waited until she felt the pressure on her back, then launched herself up and out of the alley, streaking towards the giant spire of metal and glass in the not-considerable distance.
Bad Apple looked down, watching the depressing grayness give way to magically-maintained fields and grand manors packed close together. “Serfdom, revived. I pity the earth ponies maintaining the gluttony of the ponies in those places.” He then looked to the back of Rosemary’s head. “So tell me… what brought on this crazy scheme? This is pretty dangerous.”
She was silent for a time, finally saying, in almost a whisper, “Shame.”
“Shame!” Her flight wavered as she was overtaken with a tremble of anger. “I gave in to Streamford without a question. I rolled over and took it when I could have done SOMETHING.“Another quiver ran through her soaring form. “I drank for a while. Considered… what my reflection was like in a knife. But I finally figured out I wanted to do one good deed before I died. I remembered a scoundrel coming into town and respecting me, and saving my life. I followed your example. I’d say I was riding your coattails if you wore them.” A nervous chuckle broke the heavy emotions, and her flying straightened out.
A short time later, after passing beyond the manors and farms, they alit a short distance away from the shining skyscraper, which looked especially imposing and grand, surrounded as it was by high walls of rock, and as it was the most modern and imposing structure in sight. There were surprisingly few ponies around the area, mostly marching pegasi and a few standing unicorns in white coats in conversation. The lower part of the building, which was stone and steel rather than glass and steel, was marked with warnings about restricted entry, plus two posters. The pony and slave poster, as ever. But also another one, this with three deco-inspired silhouettes, a unicorn, a Pegasus and an earth pony arranged in a triangle, with the unicorn on top. Vague lines formed that figure into the letter A, which had beside it an equals sign, and beside that a repeat of the first complex of images. Beneath it all were the words, “Objective Truth. Ask No Questions.”
“Subtle. Very subtle. Looks straightforward, though. I’ll need a bit of a favor, though.”
“What is it? Not much I can do as far as getting you in there, you’d just be transferred to more loyal, higher-access pegasi. It’s about the only way to get up past floor forty.”
“I need your access pendant, your sunglasses and any information you may have on the more specific content of the things on the accessible floors.” Bad Apple slipped his jacket off and slid it back on over his pack, buttoning it up securely. He then rolled his cuffs back into the sleeves, leaving him appearing to be a Pegasus with a jacket over his wings, and seeming very similar to the security pegasi.
“Papers, cubes and only a couple of labs on thirty-nine and forty. Accounting and planning are on twenty-two and twenty-three. It’s pretty dull. Even the labs are just about railroad tracks and resource gathering.” Rosemary passed over the sunglasses and her pendant, a simple silver globe set with a glowing gem. “How are you going to get things out?”
“I’ve got a plan. And this time, it’s not based on random jokery.” Bad Apple slipped on the sunglasses and placed the pendant’s chain around his neck. At a cursory glance, he looked very much like a proper guard Pegasus.
“It’s gotta be some plan. Well… anything else? You’re heading into a manticore’s den. So I’m probably never seeing you again.” Rosemary looked around, shifting uncomfortably.
Bad Apple gently tapped Rosemary on the cheek, shaking his head a little. “It wasn’t a good start. And as much as I cared, I had to move along. And now… the boat is down the river. I’m sorry… but as for other things, when the pegasi come down, point them in the right direction and tell them, “Moonlight Peace.” They’ll take you in but you’ll get full immunity from everything. Just spill everything.”
“What? What pegasi? What kind of plan are you thinking of here?”
“Just go with it. It’ll all make sense, sooner or later. Just hide out until the time is right.” With a final nod, Bad Apple casually strolled out into the open area in front of the skyscraper, past the knot of unicorns that did not even turn to look at him. He walked straight up to the front, head held mostly erect, and the pendant showing against his chest. The pegasi at the doors looked over, but barely deigned even to notice him as the glass doors were pushed open to give him entrance.
Inside, it was just as deco-styled as anything else, but far better maintained than any of the other examples he had ever seen, from the originals to the bare copies of prior excursions into the hearts of such places. Everything gleamed, all stone and chrome and brass polished up to dazzle the audience with ostentation. The lobby opened up into a wide, airy area, with a huge fountain in the center, topped by the domineering image, not of Trotlas, but a mature unicorn stabbing at the ceiling with her horn, which was wrapped in polished gold.
Around the place were a number of unicorns, some in white coats and some in business suits, with a small sprinkling of pegasi and a lone earth pony. They turned slightly to look at the new arrival then returned to their own activities, ignoring the caramel stallion clopping his way across the stone lobby to the gleaming elevator banks, where he entered pressed the button and sat placidly down to wait.
Inside the elevator the bank of buttons only went up to the fortieth floor, with only the first twenty crystal buttons being lit from behind. Beside the button bank was a small depression, in the shape of the pendant. Touching it to the divot caused the other buttons to light up, allowing Bad Apple to press the button for the twenty-second floor and send the elevator up.
As described, there was a certain dullness and plainness to the floor. The walls were gray-toned and unadorned, the floor was carpeted in a medium-thick pile, and the windows were slightly tinted, letting in muted sunlight, which was enhanced by the internal lights. It was like any other office building in Equestria, a Manehattan or Fillydelphia staple.
Moving around the floor he found a room marked, “Records,” which he entered quickly. Inside was a large, artificially-lit room containing boxes upon boxes, a desk, and a haggard-looking earth pony, with no mane and a purple coat. He looked up with rheumy eyes and asked, in a tired voice, “What is it now?”
Bad Apple motioned with his head, face set in a cold, stony look, enhanced by the sunglasses. “Go eat a peach. I’ll watch over things.”
The watery eyes narrowed a little bit, looking with unfriendly intensity at the black-suited stallion. But the functionary eventually rose and slowly walked out from behind the desk. “Doughnut and coffee. It’s about all that gets me through. Don’t screw it up. I’m not getting fired for you.”
“I’m no fool.” The door clicked shut and Bad Apple was in action. He had taken out the camera again and popped the lid off of boxes labeled with very recent dates, snapping shots of the papers within, especially those with logos and names of companies and individuals, along with shots of the numbers tied to products and services. There were plenty of them, all across the face of Equestria, but nothing too big, the little individual places that thought much of themselves. He recognized a few, having suspected them from his own research. But confirmation always made it far more comfortable.
Before leaving, he slid a few pieces of parchment out from his hidden pack after tucking his camera back. He placed one piece into each box and then set the lids back onto them. That completed, he slipped out of the door and moved back to the elevator area, moving up to floor forty.
The elevator opened into a space that was so different from the last floor that he was almost convinced that he had somehow been teleported into a different building. The floor was bare and polished stone, with a central line of gritty tape. The walls were made of metal painted a brilliant white, which enhanced the overhead lights into a gleaming whiteness. The floor, so far as could be seen, had no windows at all, and there were no decorations at all save more lithographs of both posters seen at the base of the skyscraper.
The place seemed largely empty, the only sounds being the humming of the fluorescent lights and vague sounds of thrumming and dull pounding from within the spaces that probably held the laboratories. The first door he found was unlabeled but looked promising enough, as it was heavily barred and imposing, though the pendant worked in the divot beside it to open it.
Beyond the door was something that looked almost amusingly like a high school science laboratory, with long black composite tables, set up with various tools and pieces of laboratory glassware. Around the edge of the room were cupboards, one set forming a long work surface, and the other set above just to hold extra items. At the far end from the door was a single unicorn in a white coat and hard helmet, with a bulge to keep his horn shielded. He was working with a series of railroad track sections, subjecting them to various blunt impacts, sources of heat, pressures and drilling. A pen was flying fast over a page, writing every single reaction.
Railroad tracks. What a bit of idiocy. Useful, helpful, but not the be-all-end-all of everything. The lesson still had not been learned.
Shank Rearedend violently stuffed papers into his case, a his horn glowing brightly, drawing in forms and plans from all around the room. His green coat was shining with sweat beneath his sharp business suit, his black mane disheveled and all askew.
“Sir! Sir!” The door to the office burst open and slammed shut, leaving the room in the darkness it had been, the only light the glow from the unicorn’s horn. “The shareholders are almost rioting! The workers are striking and clamoring for you! They can’t believe it’s true.”
“No! How did word get out so fast? This is ridiculous! Tell the shareholders the leaks are all lies and as for the workers… handle them.”
“’Handle them’? How am I supposed to do that?”
“HANDLE THEM! I didn’t hire those burly idiots for nothing. I don’t care how badly they are injured, just pacify them. Kill them if you have to but give me the time to escape before things go worse. I just need to get set up elsewhere…”
“Kill them? You’re telling me to order the hired goons to kill the workers so you can get away?”
“What’s making you so squeamish you idiot? You knew what you were getting into when you got here. This is Rearedend Metallurgical! We CRUSH our opposition.”
There was no initial response, just the soft click of the door locking, lost in the crinkling stuff of papers being packed into the case. “I knew plenty well, rear-end. That’s why I came here in the first place. But I was surprised just how far you’d go for a few bits.”
Shank stiffened, turning quickly and looking hatefully on the figure past the glow of the horn. “What? You can’t talk to me like that! Who are you? Show yourself!”
The figure stepped closer, showing off a dark suit and ruffled white shirt, with lace at his throat. His shining mane and caramel coat were impossible to mistake. “It’s me, rear-end sir, your loyal, simpering toady Bradawl Carpus. The one who saw all the papers and so carefully wormed his way into being indispensable. Oh the long game. The glorious long game. Worst month I have ever spent.”
There was a look of surprise on Shank’s face, then a narrowing of his eyes. “What was your game in all this? How does this make you richer? What good is it just to topple me? You’re out of a job you lickspittle grifter!”
“It’s all about bits with you, isn’t it?” Bradawl slowly paced around the room, avoiding getting to close to Shank, shaking his head sadly. “That’s why I was suspicious. A company making one thing? Sure, metal is useful. Lots of places make metals, but usually more than one kind. A proprietary metal? I suppose you can argue for that. But eventually the use would spread wider and if you were the only source if it was really useful there would be an outcry and boycotts. It’s not exactly indispensable.” He paused, drawing in a breath. “And then you tried to make it indispensable by stronglegging out the other metals that could be used for the same purpose. Railroad tracks. It’s about all you can do with this garbage, isn’t it? It’s useless in any other context. It makes one object. And if you use it for that, replace every inch of rail in Equestria, and lay track everywhere it can go… what then you madpony? It ceases to be useful, especially if better transport comes along. You just want to pump out as much as possible, make a ton of money and then let your entire industry collapse into nothingness, putting your workers entirely out of work. And ruin your investors. Even your fellow grasping, greedy fools aren’t safe from your gluttony.”
Shank snorted loudly. “Peasant! Your tiny earth pony mind cannot comprehend the power of my majesty. I created the metal. It’s not my fault that it has only one use, and it’s not my fault if the workers are too stupid to survive after I get my money. It’s my metal. I can sell it for my price and force things out of the market if I so choose. The collapse of the industry is not my fault. I’m grabbing my majesty and getting all of the money I have earned.”
“And screw everypony else?”
“What did they ever do for me? And I have all the bits. What can they do to me?”
“You’re going to wish you had never said that.” Bradawl slunk back to the door and threw it open wide. “He’s here! He’s here! Right in here! Come on! He’s got all the evidence he intentionally intended to destroy the industry and destroy all your investments! He WANTED to spread misery!” With a grin, he ran out of the room, his retreating hooves lost in the gallop of many hooves and the shouts of angry voices…
“You!” Bad Apple snapped to reality with a sharp, crisp cry of command to the unicorn.
“What?! Who?! Oh… what is wrong with you? This is a delicate process! What does security want now? We’re working as hard as we can.”
The caramel stallion trotted forward slowly, approaching in an officially-threatening manner. “I need to take you up to the upper floors. There’s been movements on the Whinny’s Torch project. All the scientists are being called upwards.”
“Already? That old mare is doing too much too quickly. We’re still working on this. Fine, let’s move.” The unicorn removed his helmet and set it on one of the tables.
“Wait! Do you have your upper access pendant? I’m not about to take you up if you’re not even worthy of accessing the upper reaches. Your intellect must be up to the challenge required. You know how it works.”
“Don’t you act so arrogantly, you’re just a Pegasus! Sure, better than a lowly earth pony but I’M a unicorn. Of course I have upper access. Even a doltish Pegasus should know a noble scientist like myself is free to access the- UNGH!” The unicorn crumpled like a piece of paper as the double-hoof buck caught him in the back, sending him into the cupboard and knocking him cold.
“I will have a niece who is a Pegasus. Keep a civil tongue in your unconscious head.” Bad Apple used his efficient capacity for raiding a room to find thick twine to bind up the unicorn and gag him with several rags besides. The scientist was stripped of his coat and pendant, an iron horn cap taken from the pack placed on his head before he was stuffed unceremoniously into a large storage space beneath one of the large tables.
There was a general rearrangement of Bad Apple’s attire, the pack slid around to rest on his belly, so that the coat lay flat on his back. He secured a horn cap onto his own head and then put on the helmet, the iron cap lightly tapping the inside of the horn-protecting space like a real one was there. He left behind the lower guard pendant and sunglasses, walking out of the lab with a smile.
The access pendant worked on the elevator to open a hidden panel revealing buttons that slowly lit up. These buttons went up to seventy and were labeled with a description of the floor. Mostly scientific-sounding things such as metallurgy and chemical research or such things. One of the words stood out among all the buttons, “Munitions.” Several floors were labeled as such. It boded so ill that his hoof was drawn to the button, hitting it and lightly lurching as the elevator rose.
The revealed floor was very similar to the prior floor, very industrial and insulated, with a grip-taped floor and painted metal walls. But there seemed to be more touches to it. There were warnings about stray magic sparks, signs demanding caution, and black and yellow caution tape placed around. As Any Random did not believe in worker safety, the precautions would have to have been direly necessary. It was not shaping up well at all.
He moved along, looking studious and somewhat scatterbrained, just a little bit lost like the average distracted intellectual. He didn’t encounter anypony, but heard some sounds intermittently, small thumps and booms like the distant thud of fireworks. The doors were spaced further apart than the prior floor, and one plaque stood out somehow, “Personal weapons.”
The access pendant opened the door to an empty lab, filled with whiteboards containing mathematical formulae and diagrams of various mechanical systems. Besides the whiteboards were several blueprints, both rolled up and pinned open, showing more mechanical systems and entire weapons. Along one wall was what looked like a water tank, and a table, which held a few weapons. One was a long barrel attached to a ratchet-boxed stock with a plaque on it reading, “Little Smith and Worcestershire long-range projectile-delivery device“. Below it was a much smaller device, a short barrel and cylinder with a hoof-holder below the nine-chambered cylinder, stamped with, “Big Pippe close-range projectile-accelerant device”.
The camera was out as soon as the devices’ uses came into clarity. Photographs were taken of the finished devices as well as the boards and the open blueprints. The photographs taken, a few of the open blueprints were unpinned and tucked into the bag, a piece of parchment extracted from the bag and rolled up to be inserted into one of the rolled prints.
The laboratory was left, with one change. A candle was left behind, burning, with the parchment-stuffed blueprint resting against the edge. Again Bad Apple assumed a casual gait, back to the elevator to move on to another of the “Munitions” floors.
A carbon copy of prior designs greeted him. Bland and repetitive. Surely the droning aesthetic theories of Any Random rebelled at such mundanity. But practicality, as ever, had probably forced a “reconsidering” of matters. As ever. Pragmatism was the real motivation behind the naked egoism and all else was contrived to legitimize the pronouncements that poured forth in torrents onto the page, a misused flood of ink stamped onto pages that could have been put to better use in any other manner.
Dark thoughts swirled in Bad Apple’s head, as he approached a door marked, “In Progress.” The door was not mage-locked, it opened with a simple push. Within was a pair of unicorn stallions in white coats, going over some chemical formulae on a whiteboard. They turned to regard the new arrival but turned back quickly enough. “What is it? We’re busy.”
Thoughts rushed back to the bank of buttons, and the names on the upper tiers. “I’m spreading the word. Floor sixty-two. Meeting about Whinny’s Torch. There’s been movement. At least that’s what I heard from a Pegasus.”
“What are the odds that’s true? Musclehead pegasi are always saying something idiotic or another…” One grumbled.
“Better safe than sorry. That’s a big project. And they need all the heads they have available for it. Are you going to come up?” The other looked curiously at the unfamiliar pony.
“I need to do a few more notices here and the next floor.” The answer was smooth and even, Bad Apple trotting out of the room, rudely letting the door close behind him. He swiftly ducked around a corner in the opposite direction of the elevator, listening for the hoof steps of the scientists as they left the room and trotted away, still arguing some point.
With a stealthy tread Bad Apple returned to the room, armed with the camera once more. He wasn’t even sure what he was shooting, he just shot quickly, stopping only long enough to focus before moving on to the next thing. Only when he was finished getting pictures of everything did he lower the camera and actually look at the presented items.
It was an eclectic mix of proposals and plans. Some seemed to involve annexation of certain lands via shady company dealings and the establishment of de facto company towns, most particularly in the region of Appleoosa and deep in buffalo territory. In addition there were designs of airships and conventional ground transports, but heavily reinforced and equipped with projectile launchers. Included with those were designs for things to be launched and dropped. The detail was frightening, as though it was already real, that such a thing was laying in one of the other labs. A metal shell packed with energetic powder, waiting to destroy from above.
“Is that really your only solution? You’re getting repetitive.” The plans for annexation and weaponry were taken and stuffed into the pack, another parchment removed and scattered in amongst many pieces of paper in a pile.
Another elevator was summoned and boarded, to see about a strange anomaly on the button bank. It sat there, among more descriptive plaques, being very bland and unhelpful. Etched into the metal were simply the words, “Annoyance Counselors.”
The floor was cold. Not merely the temperature, which had a distinct chill from too much air conditioning, but the whole aura. The walls were an unwelcoming gray color tinged with a light dash of sickly green. The floor was a bare sheet of polished plastic, and was chill as the air when any portion of frog touched it. The lighting was low and tinged with yellow, not a single shaft of natural light to be seen anywhere. And there was a scent… a very strange scent that was like heavy disinfectant with a whiff of iron and burned hair.
There did not seem to be much in the way of offices or anything else. There was simply one large area, whose doors opened easily and led to a bare room, painted blindingly while. The lights within were turned up too much, nearly washing out the scene. Near the far end of the room was a single low table, onto which a pony was strapped. He was an earth pony, with a brown coat and a green mane. He was wearing a black vest and black trousers, and struggled hard against the bonds.
A slight squeak halted the struggle and drew Bad Apple’s attention. A small silver cart covered with a white cloth was pushed along by two ponies. Unicorn mares. One was slight and lithe, with unfeeling brown eyes, a dull brown mane and an unforgiving steel gray coat. On her flank was a thick needle trailing thick red thread, which had sewed something that looked like the lacing on a corset. The other was stronger but just as sleek, with a kind of feline grace to her. Her cruel eyes were the rusty color of dried blood, her mane was cut close to her head and matched her coat, a very dark charcoal gray color. On her flank was an equal-armed brown cross, small streams of red coming from the two side arms and bottom portion.
“L-let go of me! How can this even be happening? This is clearly a contract violation and hardly a means of arbitrating a dispute between free ponies on a rational level!” The stallion pulled at the bonds more, head held up to look at the approaching mares.
“Oh Forlorn Hope… isn’t that quaint? He thinks he can reason his way out of the situation. How ridiculous.” The gray mare smiled with mirthless lips and dead gaze. Her voice was low and hollow, like a wasteland lived in her throat.
“Now now, Crewelwork, he has a point. Any teaches us that we must approach rationality and reason, and work between ponies as rational means.” The gray mare grinned in a predatory fashion, eyes shining like a cat toying with a mouse. “But words mean exactly what Any means they mean and not anything else. The contracts specify broad powers to handle dangerous radicals that might upset the working conditions…”
“’Dangerous radicals’? What kind of cop-out idiocy is that? What are you talking about? How in the world am I any kind of dangerous radical?” The stallion struggled and yanked hard, arching his back in a futile attempt to escape his bindings.
“Hill, Joe, laborer in the sheet metal fabrication section in factory three.” Forlorn Hope recited the identity from memory, slowly walking around the pony identified as Joe Hill. “Guardian pegasi brought forth charges of attempts to foment rebellion and discontent, calling for shorter hours, greater rations, payment in bits and a ration of salt.”
“Those are rational and reasonable concerns and necessary items. Scrip is useless outside of the vale, the hours are nearly impossible to maintain continually, starving ponies don’t work well, and salt is a necessary mineral.” Joe laid out on the table, attempting to calm himself, trying to be the rational one.
“Well, we can give you one thing…” Crewelwork whipped a cover off of the cart, showing off a pile of salt beside a number of scalpel blades. “You can have all the salt you could possibly want. Isn’t that great?”
“I don’t think he’s very appreciative. He earned this. It is not being given for nothing, like some second-hoofer altruist. This is an equal exchange, act for item.” Forlorn lifted one of the blades up and slashed over Joe’s body, making him hiss as his vest was cut open. Further cuts slashed at his trousers and vest, cutting them open and eventually mostly off. The cutting of the top revealed a dyed mark over his heart, a small circle of overlapping objects, a hammer, a sickle and a lightning bolt. “Oh my! My oh my… Look Crewel, this explains everything. He’s from Stalliongrad…”
“A generational Przewalskivek. Your ancestors were traitors to ponies and reason. They persecuted Rice Pudding and forced her to take Any Random from the haven of the Boss’ World and broke the perfection of the land. You disgusting monster.” Crewelwork levitated several blades, bringing them down to slash shallowly at the mark, following it with a sprinkling of the salt. “You will suffer. Suffer unimaginably, beyond your capacity to comprehend. And like your cohort John Brown, when you have learned the price of your insolence, you will be put in the ground.”
Forlorn prepared a selection of blades like the claws of some beast, preparing to cut across Joe’s stomach when a click broke her concentration and made her drop the sharp implements with an echoing clatter. She quickly whipped her head around, to find the door slightly ajar. She thought it had been closed. Yet she heard no hoof falls at all. With a shake of her head she picked the blades back up and slowly ran them through the pile of salt. “You will thank us later. You will abandon your idiocy. You will give up your ways and believe in what is right. That is the only fate your kind deserves.”
The elevator rose slowly, Bad Apple shuddering lightly as he fought his own muscles. He was inclined to go back, to help that poor stallion. But the more reasonable part of his brain reminded him that he could do no good dead. There were certain realities he needed to face. But it still tore at his heart to know that he was leaving him to torment. The only small favor was that death would not come quickly, leaving a chance for his release.
He exited on a floor that had been marked as “Aeronautics.” That floor was far more active. There were several milling unicorns and a few pegasi, including a couple of familiar unicorns. “Hey, you! You said that there was a meeting about the Whinny’s Torch project here. Nopony knows anything at all about that.”
“That’s just what I was told. There was a Pegasus down on forty that told me that. He interrupted me in the middle of an experiment on railroad tracks. Next thing I know I’m being sent up the place doing his job. Lazy idiot.”
The unicorns laughed loudly while the pegasi fumed. “Watch it! Fine, one of us is being a lazy mule. Give us a name and we’ll get on him.”
“Do you think I got a name? I was lucky I even got a look at him. He was red, coat and mane, really bad attitude, practically got in my face, tried to get those sunglasses to make him look more angry and imposing than he really was.”
The few pegasi conferred with one another, somewhat puzzled but also with recognition on their faces. “Wait, that guy? He’s security for the housing section. I mean, yea, he has the access for the building but he’s not high enough ranked to know anything about that.”
“Are you telling me he was lying to me? Did I just get taken by some kind of joke?”
“Now wait a minute…” One of the unicorns lifted a hoof and considered. “Didn’t you tell us you were going to tell others? Why would you do that just on the word of some Pegasus that didn’t even have access?”
“Easy on the pegasi, egg head!” One of the guards threateningly shook a hoof.
“Well how am I supposed to keep track? All these pegasi look alike, and sound alike too. Just big, angry idiots. Even the mares sound like stallions.”
“Well, he’s got a point there…” The unicorn noted, his fellow unicorns adding a chorus of laughter.
“What did you say, bucker?” One of the pegasi was right in Bad Apple’s face, nearly knocking the helmet off his head. He could see beneath, just barely noting that the horn covered by the helmet wasn’t the same color as the head from which is supposedly emerged, and there may have been some kind of straps under the helmet. “What..?”
“Back! Off!” With a flash of magical energy the lead unicorn researcher yanked the Pegasus back and pushed him against a wall. “Don’t presume to be so overbearing against your betters!”
“Better this!” The other Pegasus battered against the unicorn holding back fellow guard. With that action, the two pegasi began scuffling with the weaker unicorns who held their own with flashes of power and strong stances to keep them from being pushed around.
While the scuffle in effect, Bad Apple was free to silently scoot away, a rather stressed expression on his face. “Dame Fortuna… that golden wheel is never still, is it? Oh, Fortuna, can’t you leave me alone for a second?”
He slunk through the halls and into a lab that was partially open. Inside were several airship designs. They were wholly unlike the ones with which he was familiar. They seemed very like the plans he had seen on the prior floor, but in far more detail. The separate munitions systems were detailed, propulsion proposed and diagrammed in several forms, fortification outlined, lift calculated. Everything. Several names were spread out, some circled with arrows indicating them, such as “Mighty Trotlas”, “The Streamhead”, “Ecstasy”, and “Random’s Reason.”
He did not have an opportunity to steal anything or photograph the surroundings, because there were already ponies in there, a unicorn mare and a unicorn stallion, who were looking over a very small scale model of one of the ships depicted. The mare looked up in annoyance. “Just what do you think you’re doing in here? We’re very bus… what is that squabbling noise?”
“Pegasi muscle heads are busting up some of the scientists because they got called names.”
“Musclehead idiots… Come on. No wonder we are the superior ones.” The mare motioned the stallion out of the door, not looking to see if Bad Apple was following.
The camera was out immediately, clicking away at the presented things, including the model. “Hey what’s that weird clicking noise in here?” The stallion pushed the door open, face falling from confusion to stunned disbelief as he saw Bad Apple standing with the camera.
“Stupid golden wheel…” Bad Apple stuffed away the camera and charged the door, heavily impacting the unicorn with his helmeted head. The combination of surprise and earth pony strength bulled him out of the way to hit the wall opposite the door. As a consequence the helmet fell off, revealing the false horn and slicked mane.
The mare shouted at the retreating earth pony, firing off a bolt of magic that struck the wall with a thud, leaving a scorch mark. It was followed by another and a cry of alarm. “Stop! Intruder! Intruder! Idiot pegasi, get over here!”
Bad Apple was in a fix. The elevator bank was still occupied by the fight he started. Why did his cunningly random plans sometimes come back around to bite him in a random and unexpected way now and again? If any of the labs were unoccupied that would not provide cover for long. He opened the first door he found, finding the stairwell blocked by a screen. His pendant unlocked it and gave him access.
The stairwell was barely acceptable, metal stairs running up and down. It was in no way an emergency escape route. That would have been an extravagance. More than likely it was meant to be used as a way to get up and down if the elevators went out, but was just acceptable for the task. Given its usage, he was still trapped, just in a different form.
As he unstrapped his pack, he heard an alarm screech out, echoing up and down the stairwell. He popped an emergency flare out of his pack and struck the top, the hot, white flame hissing out loudly. “Halt! Put down that flare!” From above an angry voice rang out down the stairs. Himself to the end, Bad Apple did as he was told, dropping the flare onto the pack, which burst into a raging, smoky blaze, the whole thing consumed in extremely short order.
“Think you’re so clever, do you? We’re taking you to the creepers. You won’t think you’re so slick with them.” The Pegasus who had seen his false horn swaggered through the door and loomed over him. “On your hooves, earth pony. This is what you get for trying to rise above your place.”
“Wait a minute. Wait… a minute…” The unicorn stallion that had been head butted approached slowly, recognition in his eyes. He lit his horn, ripping the white coat off of Bad Apple to reveal the black coat underneath, with the black waistcoat and ruffled white shirt, and the black lace at his throat. His eye fell to the mark on his flank, making him stagger back. “Manacle him up! Tie him up good and tight and then take him up! Any Random will want to see him. It’s him. He’s the one. The one who destroys. The stallion of a hundred names.”
Bad Apple was marched out of the elevator, led along by a group of four pegasi and two unicorns. His head was bowed, but a smile was on his face, despite the slight trickle of blood falling from his lips. His hair was something of a mess but was largely still in position. His legs were heavily chained, locked in strong manacles, leaving him unable to take steps that were too large. His attire was completely disheveled, shirt ripped open, waistcoat torn open, coat completely rifled through.
The floor into which he was brought was a broad penthouse-like space. It was a gargantuan, deco-decorated office space, with a heavy pile carpet, scroll work on the walls, metalwork on the ceiling depicting powerful unicorns in various powerful poses. The place was bright, from the tremendous plate glass windows to the left and right from the elevator. Before the elevator was a giant wall, covered in knickknack shelves with artifacts from all across Equestria, photographs of many ponies and places, and shelves of thick tomes standing imposingly over the scene. Before the wall was a tremendous, polished desk, covered in decorative geometric patterns and laden with papers and writing implements. Behind the desk, rising from a sitting position, was a unicorn smoking a cigarette in a long, slim holder.
The mare was ancient. She looked old enough, though still somewhat strong and together. There was simply an air about her that seemed anachronistic, lost from a time long past. Her coat was a brilliant white, while her mane was dark black and pulled back into a severe bun. As she came around the desk she was shown to be wearing a sharp gray suit coat and long wool skirt, with a white flower in her lapel. She pulled a drag from her cigarette while a guard unicorn levitated over a folder to her own magical grasp. Bad Apple lifted his head and pulled his smile wider. “Any Random… well now, what are the odds? I figured you’d be dead by now. I’m no youngling myself…”
“My word… just what do I call you? So many names here.” Any Random coolly flipped through the folder, thick with papers. “”Brigandine Jasper Saltingslide” seems a bit much. “Bradley X. Higgensbotham, esq.” has a nicely affected ring to it, just the sort for a bitless grifter like yourself. “Bardacelsius Pomacious,” an ancient and ridiculous name I know shall not be forgotten. Perhaps “Bataud Carp,” who ruined what was perfect…”
“If it could be ruined, it was not perfect.” Bad Apple interjected.
“Silence! Hmmm… “Kako Udan Ibai.” No. No, you are no Zaldi or Roa. That much is certain.”
“How can you possibly know? What are we, really, but what we appear and what we make of ourselves? Why, I could ask, what are you?”
“I…” Any Random inhaled imperiously and released her words as a smooth exhalation, “Am a philosopher.”
Bad Apple’s reply was curt and piercing. “And I am an honest pony.” He smiled as the black-maned mare’s head whipped towards him. “Insofar as I am situationally and conditionally honest, you are situationally and conditionally philosophical.”
“Oh how little you know. Have you any idea of the power in my words and ideas? I have moved many ponies through all of Equestria. Created companies, liberated ponies from the iron grip of the evils of altruism and second-hoofing morality. I have created a greater system, a better means of living. I have lifted all the land up, higher and higher than anypony could have imagined. And all while being, as you said, “situationally philosophical.” Very effective situationalism I would say. But you know I work only in objectives.” Any slammed the folder closed and slapped it hard onto the desk.
“Oh yes. I know well enough. Objective madness, objective cruelty, objective misery, objective suffering. Or perhaps manifest would be the better term? A manifest destiny? Such a ridiculous notion. Old, practically cobweb-infested. The princesses do not want to expand their borders beyond reason with any speed, and expand only when population deems it necessary. And even THEN, only by negotiations and fair exchanges for the expanded property. I noticed you had some plans for Appleoosa and the buffalo territory. First of all, you go near Appleoosa with evil intent and the ponies will do more than throw pies at you, they know malevolence when they feel it. And I'll be first in line for my own personal reasons. But beyond that, that is THEIR territory. Your slimy hooves don't belong anywhere near that terri-” Bad Apple grunted as he face was viciously cuffed by a pegasus, initiated by a nod from Any.
“They don’t have any rights to the land, and there is no reason for anypony to grant them rights which they have not conceived and are not using. What is it that they are fighting for, when they opposed ponies in that region? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of Equestria untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everypony out so that you will live practically like a non-sentient animal, or a few caves above it. Any pony who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over the region.”**** Any snarled out her response, and punched a button on her desk, bringing up a crackle of electricity and magic. “Check the labs and all the offices that may have been visited. And begin incinerating the pertinent records and other documents. We can rely on redundancies until things calm down.”
Bad Apple chuckled a little bit, shaking his head a little bit and rattling his chains. “You try that. Try planting your idiotic company town out in that territory and I'll stuff you in the same hole I stuffed Gorge Pullpony, with more violence and a bigger profit. Good deed for all of Equestria plus some bits in my pouch. And you know what? Besides what it takes to keep body and soul together I donate my fees. I have built orphanages and schools, donated bits upon bits to charitable endeavors. Gained from serving the warrants on your followers and collecting the reward for their arrests. Sometimes both. I've been altruistic with the money I get coming and going.” Another few hits rained down on his face, making him spit out a bit of blood and smile a bloody smile. “Is that supposed to intimidate me or are you just getting off on it? I know how much you love involuntary sex. I've read your books. And I've had contacts that have read your personal writings.” Another cuff landed, making him stagger.
“I believe it may be instructive. After all, the invisible hoof of the market corrects all errors in time. It takes pressure and time but all wrong-thinking will be fixed in time. Direct actions in the correct direction merely speeds things along. Sexuality is important in the lives of the truly superior because the repression of sex is mere parasite morality imposed by the mystic and mendacious that honor the second-hoofing princesses that plague our land and hold back our real glory.” Any walked up to Bad Apple and slapped him with a heavy paperback book. It was one her own, the one that improbably worshiped architecture, of all thing. The thing that created Dry Gulch's monstrosity of a manor. “Any desire, no matter how slight, how merely implied, may be taken as an engraved invitation. Mere wanting is sufficient. The parasite morals must be peeled away and the true freedom of the superior revealed for all to see. The feeling of possession... THAT is full justification for activity, however it might seem to the weak-minded inferiors.”
“And here I was assuming that all Cannonites were earth ponies. Or maybe you're a griffin under that unicorn hide. Go on, you can tell me. Which female-despising group captured you a long time ago? You were up in Stalliongrad originally. It must have been griffins. And normally they're very good about not importing misogyny.” Any slapped him with the book again, knocking the grin from his face for a moment. “Well, thank you for not using a hoof.”
“That can be arranged.” With a nod the pegasi battered Bad Apple all over his body, smirking as their blows thudded heavily. “But I should not do too much. After all, you need to be unprepared for the corrective measures to be taken by my helpful ponies. Correction requires true professionals. Only experts, the top of their fields, can truly do anything. It is required. As you say, you've read my books. You know that I prize expertise over all other things.”
Another glob of blood splattered the carpet, the smile considerably more crimson than before, but still undiminished. “Yes, I stopped by that floor. Got a nice photo of your lovely mares working their magic, if you will pardon the terrible pun. By the way, your hired goons could do better. You really need earth ponies as goons. More natural muscle mass, though I suppose pegasi have a more naturally annoyed and rage-filled side. So it evens out on some level. But I should tell you... I've been roughed up far worse than this. So I feel confident I can judge the relative failings of your angry walls of muscle and-” He was silenced with a hit from one of the named pegasi, who acted without orders.
“You!” The pegasus was gripped in Any's magical field, screaming as he was thrown back and tumbled along the floor. “You undertook an agreed position with the understanding you would wait for orders before acting in such a manner. Get out of here! Go down there and... oversee the search and destruction or similar.”
“My comment stands. You probably missed this in your research, because it was very, very heavily covered up, but I've been beaten worse during my stint as a constable. It was a magical creature that did it. It had claws in addition to horrible battering. And it literally filled my veins with festering hate all the while. You're not breaking new grounds in personal torment.”
“You have not had the pleasure of the company of my pair of encouraging mares. I'm sure they will impress you far more than this present rabble. Do not fear. You will learn that my great talent for finding superior ponies creates much better results than the simple happenstance of whatever put you in conflict with a mere magical creature.” Any sucked a long, slow drag on her cigarette, blowing the smoke in Bad Apple's face. “Do not doubt that, whoever you are. Just a huckster, a grifting nothing. You were lucky, wrapped in the warm cocoon of your second-hoofing parasite morals and society. You had plenty of collectivist altruists there to help you. To “give”, the ultimate objective evil. But you are not in the realm of your princesses any longer. This is my realm. You will not have your good fortune to help your slide through as before.”
Bad Apple blew through the smoke and pulled a huge smile. “I am so pleased you're being so open. Your realm is it? Well, presumably you're paying in scrip, just like that Gorge Pullpony. Another company town. But beyond that, just how much do you think you control? Have you made your own laws? No, impossible. You must use the same laws as in the rest of the Principality. You live there, after all.”
“Bah! What would I do with the laws of second-hoofers and parasites? The worthless laws of precedent and ministers and the princesses. No. I reforged the laws into the proper form. The law of identity is first and foremost, A is A. But only very slightly below that is the most important law, the imposition of the forbidden. The word that may never be uttered.”
“”Give.”” Bad Apple laughed, loud and long, with such force and duration that Any initially intended to order further abuse but slowly changed her plans and settled her face into a look of disturbed disgust. “Yes, I see your new law. The iron law. Is that really how you build a strong, robust and stable society? Would you actually prefer to RULE a dead rock than HELP enrich a live land?”
There was a long moment of silence. Then the heavy thuds of a few blows landing. “Rule creates order. Stability. Control. The dead rock will spring to life under the careful tending of an objective being. Great intelligence, power and money will force all growth.” Any pulled a draw on the cigarette again and blew a cloud of smoke to the ceiling. “You are not in favor of chaos, are you?”
Bad Apple groaned softly, shaking his head a bit and rattling his chains a bit, to keep himself on his legs. “Not at all. Not. At. All. That would be terrible. But I'll tell you one thing, miss Random, there's one thing I DO love quite a great deal. The truth. And let me tell you, there are some factual errors in your glossy propaganda.”
Any held up a hoof, an amused smirk on her face as she approached the beaten stallion. “Really? Is that so? Well then, mister nameless conpony, please do enlighten me! In all my great intellect and reason, how did I manage to make errors in my posters that were designed in perfect objectivity.”
“First off, the least egregious is your A is A. It's true for math but there are so many variables in real life that you can't make that claim at all. And it's so ironic because it runs right into your claims of superiority. One plus one plus one is equal to three. But three ponies working in concert will always be stronger than three individuals, all other things being equal. All of us are stronger than the lot of you. We work together because it works. So, your claims of equivalency aren't well founded, beyond math. And who uses math besides card counters and accountants?”
Any ruffled Bad Apple's mane and flicked it disdainfully. “Oh you charming scoundrel. You missed your calling as a lawyer. You could defend your precious criminals and parasites. But what other possible errors could you concoct? Do tell me. It's fascinating how your second-hoofing mind works.”
“Oh that's very easy. It was the first piece of propaganda I saw when I arrived. “A pony chooses, a slave obeys.” If I may be so strident, that is pure garbage. I would say, in fact, that you have that ridiculous platitude entirely backwards.”
The condescending smile fell from Any's face, her hooves coming up to grab Bad Apple's cheeks, pulling him up into a hard gaze. “You think you can concoct a more reasoned idea than me? Impossible.” She tossed his head to the side, turning around and angrily sucking another puff from her cigarette. “Go on then! Astound me with your wonderful logic and reason!”
“It's easy, really. A slave chooses. Slaves, by definition, have nothing left. Their very lives are mere commercial items to be passed along. If they toil they toil because they have weighed the options and decided that they should do so. They have little to lose in rising up and trying to free themselves. Everything has been taken away, and they could take it all back if they chose, or die trying. A pony, and all other sentient species, obey. They obey laws. They maintain civilized society with laws and adherence. We all obey, because, just like before, all of us as one are stronger than a multiplicity of screaming individuals. Helping a neighbor makes all the community stronger, and means that they might help me. We get along and play nice because the war of all against all just makes you tired. And you can believe me. I'm a scoundrel.” Bad Apple gave a bright smile, giving his chains a little rattle and dropping a wink to the fuming crone.
“No. Ponies operate as strict individuals, rational ends in and of themselves. They have no responsibility to their neighbors or any other pony around them. Parasites demand that others serve them. That is all. Objective. Rational. True!” Any Random stomped her hoof, prompting another flurry of battering hooves to rain down on Bad Apple. “Remember, soft tissue, no breaks. He needs to be conscious to appreciate correction.”
Bad Apple swayed on his hooves, crossing them, staggering on them, weaving lightly between the guards that had just beaten him. He breathed heavily, with a slight bit of pain finally starting to work into his voice. “You did it again. I said it when I saw Cherrywood Acres for what it really was. A prison without bars stuffed to the gills with slaves without chains. And this isn't just a gaudy tourist trap. This is a nightmare factory. You're pumping out products for the domestic market sold through shell companies and finished in the other shops. But you're also developing and building things that will harm and kill. I don't know how much is just blueprints and how much is ready, but any amount of progression is too bucking much.”
Any backhoofed Bad across the face, glaring down on him hatefully. “You know, I have many reasons to hate you. But you had to mention the biggest. Streamford Grade was a genius! You saw my development program. It could have been so much more advanced with his expertise. I had been keeping track of his developments and his insights. I was preparing for him when YOU intervened. His arrest set me back ages.”
Bad Apple replied, with a simple, passionless syllable. “Good.”
Any laughed, a cold and harsh laugh. “Oh? Hipposian responses? Laconia does not suit you. You're too much of a slippery conpony to be such a cold and hard pony. You are trying to be what you are not. And that is just lying, to yourself and me. How rude.”
With a shake of his head, Bad Apple lifted his eyes up to Any. “I can see you are prepared to hurt ponies. Kill them. Spread terror and sorrow and misery. Lay waste to the land. Probably to force the Princesses to capitulate to stop the suffering. But what if the populace wants to fight back? The Princesses will be inclined to oppose you because the ponies, as one, will stand against you, with allies like zebras, buffalo, Diamond Dogs, donkeys, griffins... how could you possibly hope to last against many acting as one?”
The stillness and silence that followed stretched on, while Any seemed to be contemplating something. Her horn glowed and she brought a paper from her desk, showing it to he captive. It was one of the air-dropped shells, but tremendously larger, as shown in scale beside a pony. “Energetic powder, enriched and purified into a most destructive form, pure annihilation. All with a core of magically-infused crystals and suspended in an infused lattice of the same. A magical destroyer, the powder's energy converted to magic, with an output so energetic it is measured in terathaums. The terathaum bomb. If this could ever be developed, there should be enough energy in it to destroy anything. We're trying to enrich the powder at the moment, then the core and lattice will need to hold sufficient magical energy. But this is our stated end. This is the ultimate weapon. This is victory.”
Suddenly, Bad Apple reached out for the paper and grabbed it out of the air, making his guards and Any stagger back a bit as his manacles and chains rattled on the floor. “Wow. And I thought your books were disgusting nightmares. What kind of sick, hideous mind could conceive of such a thing?”
“Wh-what? You imbeciles, didn't you chain him up properly? What do I pay you for!?” Any grabbed the dumbfounded guards one at a time and threw them around with snarling contempt.
Bad Apple stuffed the paper into his opened shirt, a necklace dropping into view, having been tucked back around behind his neck and held down by his mane. “Oh don't give them grief. My lace has lock-picks in the ends, sufficient to open simple locks. Combined together they can work as a shim. And I hate to say it, but buying from the lowest bidder is not the best idea. Manacles are mass produced and often share the same key across huge production runs. Knowing how to shim one means you can shim a bunch of them. Did you really not notice all the chain-rattling and shuffling? You're easy to distract.”
Any was ready to lash out at the smug Bad Apple when her speaker crackled to life. “Emergency! Emergency! Pegasi are entering our space! Reports incoming of an invading force! No reports of specificity but there are still new guards coming in! Emergency!”
“Well, now that was much, much faster than I anticipated. I actually thought I'd have this little tete-a-tete, be a cheeky little wag and then get tormented a bit before anything happened. I'm rather flattered. Then again, enough unicorns and enough official orders can speed anything along.” Bad Apple lifted up his silver-and-ebony pendant and gave it a kiss. “Direct and to the point.”
“Y-you? What is this? A gang of thugs from your checkered past? The second-hoofer parasites from all those towns you ruined?”
“Oh no. I leave the hired goons to you. Tell me something, do you know how enchanted distant-communication parchment works?”
“I presume you don't. Well... parchment is infused with a mystic field that is particularly attuned to a particular pony or location which is made into a receipt node. A bit of an egg-head thing to say. But I had it explained to me. I also learned that parchment so enchanted produces a field around it such that it can be used to transport more than just itself, like, say... tickets, or a book, or maybe... a box of incriminating paperwork, or maybe an entire pack full of evidence. All sent off to the receipt node.”
Realization passed over Any's face, a kind of stunned mask settling over her features. “No... you can't be an official from any of the government agencies. I'm sure I would have known of you. Any mission would have made noise, noise enough to get some kind of notice...”
“Royal guards!” The speaker on the desk burst to life again, crackling as the voice on the other side maxed out the decibel capacity of the device. “Reports confirm royal guards! Multiple squads. Unicorns and pegasi have taken the factories and are moving into the residential areas! Guards in retreat! Mass arrests!”
“And there's one other thing about receipt nodes. At a very close range you can use them as a kind of locator. The approach of the parchment can be tracked in flight. So, let's just make this a little easier.” Bad Apple swiftly shimmed his manacles completely off and then took up the loose chains, twirling them around and then hurling them with great strength at one of the huge plate-glass windows, hitting it solidly and filling it with giant, jagged cracks, but not really shattering it.
“So impressive. And here I thought you said earth ponies were so strong. Now that you're free and now that you have released the petulance upon my window, what do you intend to do?” Any sneered sarcastically, and stubbed out her cigarette in a large ash tray on her desk.
“Tsk. Temper temper. Defeat seems to have made you rather unfriendly.” Bad Apple looked out the shattered window, with a smile, the high tower giving him a vague view of the spread of the vale, with some small, flying figures barely visible over the sprawl.
“I am hardly defeated. My ideas are spread across all of Equestria, in the minds and hearts of all the most powerful and superior ponies. I think, in fact, that I have won. Besides, I can escape quite easily from here. I can blend in and sneak away.” Any motioned towards the elevator, which opened up.
“Not all of them. Not in the slightest. You mocked the Zaldi and Roa but I know that... oh, here we are...” A green smoke cloud snaked its way through the cracks in the window, rushing to his necklace and popping into a parchment. It fluttered to the ground and showed a simple statement. 'Incoming.'
Shortly after the message appeared there was a tremendous crash, the cracked window shattering to pieces as a large mountain stone smashed through it and rolled casually into the room. Following through the hole came a knot of gold-armored pegasi, some of whom released silver-armored unicorns, whose horns lit threateningly. The lead pegasus was a strong, tall stallion with fancy piping on his barding and a larger-than-average crest on his helmet. He cast his golden eyes around the room and gave a small smile and shake of his head. “I seem to see you all too often.”
“Cavalier Golden Stare. Officious as ever, but as ever, a dedicated and heroic figure. And so punctual. I didn't expect you for hours. I suspect there was a mass call and a mass transport. Would that mean Destrier Dark Skies is out there?” Bad Apple slowly trotted his way to the lead pegasus, a friendly and amused smirk on his bloody face.
Golden tossed a cloth to Bad Apple and shook his head. “When L... her majesty orders, you obey, fast. We were ready; we've been ready and on edge. She got the pack and suddenly we were off, exactly as directed. You're not an easy stallion to find. Glad the message came through quickly. We figured you, being you, would be in a place like this. But not exactly in here. Penthouse office. Impressive.”
“I'm an open secret, aren't I? Well, let us get to it all, then. You probably don't believe it, but this really does hurt. I've just been through worse. Do you have anything for me or can I see the medical corps?” Bad Apple slicked his mane back as best he could and wiped at his battered face, adjusting his attire to be slightly more presentable.
“You've still got a job to do. Her majesty specifically gave orders that you were to handle this.” Golden hoofed off a rolled scroll, stamped with the seal of Princess Luna.
“Wait a minute... something's missing here. You know I want to do this right. It has to be good and legal.”
“Suddenly you're concerned about what's legal? Come on. You act like I've never met you.”
“Give me some credit. After all, I have to get paid. And there's a lot of hoops to jump through.”
“Like she'd ever make you jump through hoops... not thinking about it.” Golden dug around in his saddlebags and pulled out a silver object, hoofing it over to Bad Apple. “Watch that scroll, I'll bet the ink is still wet on it.”
Bad Apple opened up the scroll and looked it over with a nod. “It's all set, right? The specific parts will follow from this thing, right?”
“Of course. You're not dealing with amateurs. Her majesty is wise in the way of these things. So get to it.” As almost an afterthought Golden also gave over a set of manacles and a horn cap.
Bad Apple took the objects and turned back to Any Random, who was standing there looking indignant. “You wanted to know who I am? I'll tell you all you could ever possibly need to know.” He affixed the silver object to his attire and showed it proudly. A crescent moon badge. “Nightwatch-backed warrant server, badge number 7777. It has taken years, upon years. And I never thought I would be saying this, or even saying it at all. You've been a nightmare for so long...” He stood up straight and adjusted his clothes again, striding grandly over to the old mare. “Any Random, you are under arrest for high treason to the crowns!”
“Any Random!” Weeks later. Bad Apple had been sequestered in a private suite, tended to medically by the trustworthy apothecary Zecora, who had been brought to live in Canterlot during the recovery period, together with Applebloom. It had been greatly pleasing to Granny Smith to know her granddaughter was being brought to the capital city, though she had no clue her discarded offspring was being helped by the zebra about whose status she crowed. In that time his testimony had been collected, along with other witnesses desperate to reduce sentences or escape punishments such as exile or solitary confinement. The papers and other items found in the Vale were pored over by scholars, adding to the evidence. It finally came down to a closed-chamber confrontation. Any Random, in manacles and horn cap, faced by none but Princess Celestia, Princess Luna and Bad Apple, sitting by the throne of the night. “Come forward. You stand accused of high treason to the crowns and Principality and the population thereof. How do you plead?”
“I refuse to recognize your power over me! As a rational being made of my own will and standing tall as a singular creature controlling my destiny I do not recognize your social contract which was imposed without my will and I do not have to conform to your second-hoofing parasite morals!”
“No plea entered. You stand accused of treason. Your specific crimes directly against Equestria, ignoring all lesser crimes, are usurpation of authority, counterfeiting, slavery and the production of dangerous objects for the purpose of turning them against Equestria in rebellion.” Princess Celestia stomped her hoof, sending out a thunderous crack through the throne room.
“And where is my lawyer? I know all about law. As the accused I get a lawyer of my choice because I certainly have the money to afford the best in all of Equestria, who is, I assure you, in accord with my philosophy. Bring me Tome Seeker, he will serve me well.”
“Money? You're broke, miss Random. Broker than laws when I pass through.” Bad Apple piped up with a cheeky, grinning voice. “All your assets have been confiscated for the Equestrian coffers, even the ones you thought you hid. And should any other stores be found, those would be taken too.”
“Aye, thy chastening shepherd speaks true. All thy ill-gotten wealth be in our hold. Thou hast not a cracked groat or mustard token to thy name. But thou art not before the judgment seat as thou conceivest it. Thou are standing afore a tribunal of out sister and our self. And thy accuser be thy captor, face and voice of the population of Equestria. Thy doom be delivered with the absoluteness and force of the diarchy.”
“Huh! So this is a farce. A fake court to persecute a helpless elderly mare.”
“Oh get over yourself. This is to prosecute a traitor to the realm. And don't grouse, you mendacious crone. I have been before a one-princess tribunal. I got off, in the legal sense. I have to clarify since, as I recall, you are completely obsessed with sex, usually with questionable consent.”
“Are you still on that? Really, it was ONE scene. And... some diary entries. That's unimportant! The idea is that it was casually laid out so that ponies could understand what power and will can allow.”
“To return to the proceedings, the evidence is overpowering. Slavery. You held ponies against their will...” Celestia began.
“I did no such thing! I offered work, had contracts and gave them encouragement. They chose to work in the factories.”
“Wrong.” Bad Apple sorted through a folder and pulled out a paper. “A confession from the head of the factory guard. Doors were chained to keep ponies inside during working hours, the residences were carefully monitored to ensure nopony slipped out during the night. The only way to escape was to buy out a contract, but only for the pony in question. They could not work for their family members or any other pony, enforcing the official selfishness. No free egress, trickery, manipulation of the amount of money made for amount of work. You were afraid your secret would get out. You needed slaves, so you chained ponies in paper and ink.”
“Charge, upheld!” Luna cried loudly and stomped a hoof into the ground.
“Counterfeiting. You knowingly and willful produced currency with the intent to present it as true money for the repayment of debts and liabilities.”
“False! I did no such thing. It's not like I was stamping out the fiat slag you call bits and imprinting my face on it or some such thing. I was making scrip accepted freely in all applicable locations within Vault's Vale, suitable for paying mounting debts, purchasing things at official stores and for personal usage in any manner. And it was all tied to work. That made it valuable.”
“Confession of the lead accountant. You took in money in the form of bits, all profits of your shell companies and other endeavors were not converted to scrip. And besides that, you presented your rear-wiping funny money as real currency. I have been informed that according to the Pullpony Act, presenting self-created currency as recompense for liabilities, especially when done by business owners, it is an act of treason, an attempt to say that they have more minting powers than the government.” Bad Apple winked down at Any Random. “By the way, you probably knew, but I was the one that arrested Pullpony.”
“Second-hoofing monster! Government parasite!”
“Usurpation of authority. You presented yourself as the ruler of the land and in doing so presented yourself in imitation of myself and my sister, a misrepresentation of your status and position.”
“And to cut you off, you unlawfully annexed a portion of Equestria. You're lucky you didn't go further north, you would have been invading the Griffin Kingdom. Besides the annexation, you formulated your own laws that violated the laws of Equestria. In that manner, you were imitating the princesses, as lawgiver and enforcer. That's treason, almost by definition.”
“Charge, upheld! Thou art loud and filled with naught but echos, as an empty vessel.”
“It is not treasonous to my own will and self, the only loyalty that matters at all in the world. We are all but wills and selves and not any sort of connected creature, much as you pyrite-plated thugs may claim it is so. 'Harmony and togetherness' are the lies parasites tell to keep themselves from realizing ego and selfishness are the only true morals that exist.”
“Yes well... I read your books. You DO go on. Endless, babbling speechifying seems to be your stock-in-trade. I think there is only one last matter.” Bad Apple looked across at Celestia, gently patting at the breast of his coat.
Celestia nodded solemnly and glared down at Any. “The last charge, the production of dangerous objects for the intent of rebellion. Plans. Prototypes. Working models. Photographed, sent here, seized. These things you conceived... assault airships, dangerous personal arms, refined explosive devices. Dangerous. But capable of being withstood...”
Bad Apple took his cue, reaching into his coat and pulling out the plan he had taken from Any in her office. “Then there was this. A concerted intent, direct and terrible, to literally kill the princesses and destroy both Canterlot and all it represents. The terathaum bomb. Presumably to be delivered by one of your ships. This is not ambiguous nor could you claim self-defense, as I'm sure you were going to, claiming that your idiot book was a blueprint for a perfect society and you needed protection. This is not protection. This is murder.” He produced a small lighter, recognizable as Any's own, and ignited the paper, letting it burn to ash and blow away.
Any was silent for a long while, her eyes sullenly tracing the drifting ash as her dreams blew away. “Rebellion is not murder. It is setting in place what ought to have been. Rationality tells us what things are. And in that rationality, we may known that greed is the right way.”
“You will never reach your ought with that 'is.' That was always your failure.” Celestia slammed her hoof to the floor, her sister matching the motion. “The penalty for all charges so enumerated and confirmed is incarceration. For life. With no possibility of parole.”
Any only smiled, and shook her head. “Altruistic second-hoofers to the end. I planned to kill you, and you're leaving me alive. Pathetic.”
“Because we art not thee. Now go ye off, to darken not our court for the rest of thy days.”
Electric lights glowed steadily, illuminating the smooth-carved passage in the mountain that jabbed into the dim distance. Chains clanked as Any Random trudged along, her horn lacking a cap but her magic not flaring up as pegasus and earth pony guards escorted her down the corridor. She passed a barred cell and looked inside, seeing a strong, noble unicorn stallion, pure black with a white mane, wearing pince-nez spectacles. He stared at her curiously, almost seeming to recognize her. “Yes, the malevolent parasites have captured me as well and thrown me here. Don't worry, things will change.”
The stallion's eyes widened in recognition, and he motioned to one of the guards. “Where is she going to be placed?”
“Next cell down, just in conversation distance.”
“We can commiserate and discuss the injustice of...”
The stallion cut off Any with a clank of hooves against the bars. “Please, no! I know her. I've read her works. You cannot put her anywhere near me. This place would become unbearable. Use the deep cells, the easy access ones that allow for the delivery of food and other items without extended contact with others. Keep your wits about you. She deserves to be here.”
The earth pony nodded his head and saluted. “Right away, Professor.”
As Any was pushed down the corridor towards the depths of the mountain she seethed. Then turned to the guard that had responded. “So you obey the prisoners here? Then will you listen to my theories on society?”
“The Professor is here because he thinks he needs to be. He felt it was best for the world that he stay in here. We all like him, and we want to keep him happy. He seems to really have it out for you. So you're going down where we won't have to deal with you often at all.”
“Altruists condemn me even in here. But it's not over. Not yet...” She muttered darkly as the dimness swallowed her and her guards.
“The news is getting around, or at least what news was permitted to get around. The Official Secrets Act has had the desired effect. The arrest and crimes of Any Random have been spread around, and there have been some sporadic celebrations because of it, especially in communities that received their own citizens back. And a grand celebration in Stalliongrad, with parades and floats and cheers for some mystery being that captured the great nightmare. Are you sure? You can have all the adulation and adoration you could ever want. You've earned it and then some.” Celestia looked down with a smile at Bad Apple, sequestered in a side-room with him, away from prying eyes.
“Maybe... no. Not now. I'm just satisfied with how things worked out. I feel like I earned my place in Canterlot now. I'm worthy of my position inside the palace.” Bad Apple stretched out a bit and tried his best to look humble.
Celestia lifted Bad Apple's chin with a shake of her head and mirth shining in her eyes. “You “earned” your place in the palace when you made my sad sister smile. You slippery thief. You stole her heart right out of her chest. And I thank you for it all the time.”
He smirked winningly and slid a hoof through his mane. “I took her heart. And she took mine. A fair trade, to be sure. But I mean, this isn't the personal earning of a position here. I earned myself a spot among the elite by hard work, clean living and fancy hoof-work.”
“Two-thirds of that statement is true. Maybe.” Celestia gave a soft laugh behind her hoof and lit her horn, levitating over a pair of golden scrolls. “You earned some reward. I can't give you any public honors because you declined things such as titles and lands. But I think you deserve these.” She passed along one. “This is a warrant. Signed by myself and my sister. It is a fiat warrant. Completely blank. Put a name on it, a crime on it, a date on it and sign it. It allows arrest, search, seizure and holding. You could arrest anyone and search for all the evidence you want. There would be consequences, of course. But in the initial case, you wouldn't even need a bench warrant, a bounty tag or anything else. I don't think I need to say this, but... use it wisely. You only get one.”
Bad Apple took the scroll and nodded slowly, sliding the scroll around and into his coat. “I most certainly will. And that one?”
Rather than hoofing it over, Celestia unrolled it and read from it. “Let it be hereby known that by the royal decree of their majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, the bearer of this scroll, which by means of magic can only be held by the true and sole pony for whom this decree was made, by any alias known prior, has official, full and complete royal pardon for all crimes, civil and criminal, committed on or before the date below-written.” With a flash, Celestia produced a quill and swiftly wrote in the date. She then rolled up the scroll again and pressed it to Bad Apple, a flash of golden light illuminating the room.
There was a moment of stunned disbelief before Bad Apple took the scroll in his hooves and looked at it. “You mean... I'm not a criminal anymore?”
“I didn't say that.” Celestia winked at the stunned stallion. “It will always be with you, discreetly. If you call for it it will be at your side and nopony can take it from you. That's all I wanted to give you. You flatter me with your imitation focus. But I know your head is where your heart is. Go on to her. I think you earned that too.” She kept smiling as Bad Apple bowed and dashed out of the door. “You didn't say it, but I understood it. You paid a dowry you never owed.”
What happened when Bad Apple reached Princess Luna was a private thing, a very personal activity. It lasted many hours, and they never let one another cease touching one another. There was always some contact, some small touch that kept them connected, flesh to flesh, as a representation of heart to heart.
After Luna had raised the moon from behind her windows, and closed the thick, heavy curtains once again, she slowly walked to the bed, grinning over at Bad Apple, who was laid out in the bed, bare, his mane a wild, spiky mess, still shining in the low light of the bedchamber. He looked to be lightly dozing, but opened his eyes as she got close to him. A smile spread on his face and she returned it, reaching a bare hoof out to slide his mane back. “Did I wake you?”
“I hope not. I'm not dead yet.” He grinned and popped his eye-ridges cheekily.
Luna laughed gently and leaned down to kiss his cheeks. “Clever. Are you truly my match in all things.” She sat beside the bed, while Bad Apple rose up and leaned in against her neck. “Such a long path have you trod. And reached your end. So much has been made of this. Have you seen?” She levitated over an official-looking parchment and a small bronze badge, with relief images of a hammer, sickle and lightning bolt. “The ponies of Stalliongrad have presented this to the unknown force who rid the land of Any Random. 'Tis no mere honorarium. 'Tis a true badge of office. As this decree doth proclaim, you now are a member in honest standing of the Stalliongrad Red Legion.”
“I feel so... legitimate.” Bad Apple took the badge and decree, chuckling softly and setting them down on a side table. “A real jurisdictional power in the city and environs of Stalliongrad, plus my Nightwatch powers that let me act as a constable for arresting those wanted or under warrant. I never imagined that I would ever be a constable in any city. I thought I might be in love... but I'm a wanderer. I was always taught, if you put a seed in the ground, you STAY there and watch it grow.” He settled into a heavy, contemplative silence, looking down at his hooves tapping together before him.
Luna kissed him on the forehead and gave a slow nod. “Aye. Your life has grown like a great tree. Blasted, gnarled, twisted, but in spite of blight and the lashes of fortune, made grand and mighty. 'Tis a testament to your strength. You have endured.”
He continued to look contemplative, tapping his hooves together slightly more softly. “Yea... endured. And it's been so long. I took my new identity on the river, and found Grain Gulch. And I found the horrible books that inspired Dry Gulch. The first, but not the last. Since that moment, implicitly or explicitly, I chased her across the face of Equestria. And now... it's done.” His head turned slowly, to regard Luna. “I can enjoy rest. And I can ask...” He sucked in a deep breath. Five words. Five small words. “Luna... will you m-”
A dainty hoof placed itself against his lips, stopping the word before it could burst into the room. She slowly shook her head, slipping her hoof from his lips. “Nay...”
Bad Apple worked his mouth, gobsmacked and disbelieving. His breath became shallow, head slowly falling, eyes darting around rapidly. “B-but... I...”
“My black knight-errant... my champion of gold heart and silver tongue...” She laughed gently, leaning in to nuzzle at his snout. “The auguries speak. The time be wrong. Nay... Your sword, your lance, your shield. You may not lay them to moulder in the flowers. Your quest be not yet done.”
“She's... gone. The Vale is being taken apart piece by piece. Her agents are on the run or going into hiding. I did what was needed...”
“Aye. Aye... Random be gone, her accursed land be cleansed and her scurrilous miscreaunts be set to fly, or gone to ground. And yet... you have but cut the head. As a hydra, the vile body doth yet live.” Luna sighed, and slowly strolled away, towards the window. “You will be of better physic to the principality, seeker of the evildoers, than to mine heart and body. Though it hurt. Though it doth hurt me to the soul.”
Bad Apple clumsily scrambled out of the bed, approaching Luna with a kind of reverential empathy. He hurt. But he could feel, in almost a tactile way, that she was hurting even more. The suffering of a goddess “Then why not let me do this? Why not let it end so we can both be happy?”
Luna slowly brushed aside the heavy curtain, to peer out through the smoked glass. Even with the shading, she could see the lights of the terraces that made up Canterlot, the glow of a thriving city, filled with living beings that, whether they thought of it or not, needed her to defend them. Needed the crowns to defend them. All of a sudden, she sang out, a heavy, mournful tune. “Th starnys are swithe bel a-bouen th palais walles/ Thei schyne wit par wlite a-bou far humbler halles/ Ich wacche tham fro min fenestre ah teyrre bryghte en-sweemen leme/ Munes me o th fraunchise ich a-gife sae longe a-gon/ Th roial bege of brayde gulde restes lichtly on min frount/ Ich ones thoght onlich of th rightes thes bege wolde dowe/ Ah ones ich tooke th corone which ich hefde bee scoled and bred/ Ich fand it heuy on th huerte tho licht vppon th nol/ Al if ich am th lede of stalle in sooth ich am th leste/ Th soth kwene kenns here leode fed fore heo sittes farmen/ Th bayn kwene kenns heo leode sauf fore heo ta's heo reste/ Thenks tweye and threye and yete eft-sone fore heo ma's requeste/ For thei aren al min cheldren al that ich swore fenden/ It is min duete be-comen bothe kwene and truste frend...*****”
There was a moment of silence, as Bad Apple parsed the much more archaic words, putting them into proper translation in his head and catching the meaning of them. “I see... I... see... If I may ask... what is that from? It's very... instructive.”
“'Tis an ancient verse. From before even the time of Discord. 'Twas composed as a tale that must needs guide the ruler of each nation. “The Cost of the Good Queen's Crown” as 'twould be rendered in this modern tongue. Howe'er it may pain... land and subjects first come. Ever. Else am I a traitor to them all, foul as Any Random.”
A trembling hoof was gently placed on Luna's back, giving a gentle stroke. Rough, strong, yet nimble. He pressed in, warmly offering himself as a source of comfort. “So... back to the grind? Status quo, as ever. I'm very used to hiding from the spotlight. I turned down less just this afternoon. I'll be the constable to the principality, mopping up the mess Any Random left behind, and getting rid of anything else I may find. I'll do it, as long as you need me to.”
Luna slowly leaned in against her lover, still looking over the land. “Your earned desert for this errand...”
“'Desert'? You mean a reward. Never mind that.” Bad Apple waved off the idea with one hoof, shaking his head. “I didn't start this thing for a reward. I just bumbled into it. Things happened.”
“In sooth, this is so. But you did it for the good of this land you love, this land which we rule and care for with such love we must place aside our own heart. For subjects that know not your name but praise you in heart and mind. The desert, unbidden, shall be a seat besides the throne of night. As consort in name and rank. The Grand Duke.”
“Grand Duke... it has a nice ring to it, I will agree. It's a nice thing to consider. I certainly hope I can do enough to deserve it.”
“I have no doubts. You have already. And for another rich desert... when you come again, to claim your earned reward, shall you also take me with a belly full of young bones.”
A smile grew across his face, as a wistful look twinkled in his eyes. “A seed to watch... Sounds like my kind of reward.” He looked back to the bed, and made a slight motion. “I want to set off, so I can discharge my duty all the faster. Can I get one more good night of sleep before I'm away again?”
“Aye... aye, mine heart. And as well, I shall be with you all the night long.” Both ponies walked back to the bed, the covers pulling back to grant them entrance. Bad Apple offered to let Luna go first, but she permitted him to go in first.
“Guess I get to try my luck some more. Good thing I've been at this for a while.” He settled against Luna's body, curling in tightly against her as she settled onto the bed and magically pulled up the sheets. His body was an open book to her. She could tell when he had actually gone to sleep. His chest rose and fell against her, head resting shamelessly against her warm, divine form.
She caressed his slick, pomade-anointed mane. It felt smooth and sleek beneath her bare, royal hoof. He was like his mane. Dark, yet bright in the right angles of light, slick, smooth, flowing easily. Yet... it took much effort to maintain. And as time wore down on him, as it would ever wear down on mortals like him, it would be harder and harder.
She had left out much from the song she had given to him. The middle concerned the lamentation of the queen on sending her most faithful out on sallies. And there were no promises in the sending of warriors. Even if constables had different dangers, they still faced some peril, especially a scoundrel with only the veneer of a constable's stability and backing. She pulled him in tighter, watching him through the darkness. She would send him back out, until he could not serve. He had proved himself most worthy and competent. Strong. Powerful. Too useful to the Principality, and the citizens. They needed him more. They had locked away a creature of selfishness. She could not think of such avarice. But, holding him in her grasp, looking at him, sleeping and filled with love and contentment...
“Ah godes thet by biyonde th starnys if ou canne hiere min crak/ And if ou owen arm-hertnesse lette me sende na mo a-swelten...*****
“You let him go.” After sunrise the next morning. “He was fully recovered, Any Random has been sent to prison for the rest of her life.” Celestia was standing with her sister on top of one of the towers of Canterlot. “I know there's not much chance to talk when you are together but you have to stop sometime. At the very least he has to eventually run out of sperm!” Celestia was increduloudly watching her sister, who was watching a small, dark figure walking away from the castle.
“Nay, sister. I do believe his stones be wholly without end. But that be not the crux of your objection. You must ken, sister... it was most vital he be free to serve. The Principality cries for the sword and shield and lance of the black knight-errant. He must go. Howe'er it may be... he must go.” Luna held a neutral visage, appearing strong as she traced the figure leaving the high gates of the palace itself.
“But... WHY!?” Celestia turned her sister, forcing her to face her. “He has arrested a traitor, broken a criminal organization, saved towns... he stole the heart out of your chest and breath out of your lungs! He even all but admitted he felt he had paid for a dowry that never even was expected! Why would you let him go?”
Luna kept her face strong and rigid, but a tiny tear slowly slid down the side of her face. “The Cost of the Good Queen's Crown.” The words were spoken with a small voice, tight from restrained emotions.
Celestia's face fell into a pained look of complete understanding. She gathered her sister up into a tight hug, squeezing securely. “Oh my sister... I had always hoped that you would never feel the weight of the crown, as I have.”
Luna pushed the tiara higher up her forehead, shuddering a touch in her sister's hold, and turning her head to watch the fast-receding figure growing less and less distinct. “'Tis not mine head that doth groan 'neath the burden.”
Celestia turned to look as well, giving her sister a comforting stroke. “It never is, Sister... it never is...”
*: “Tom O’Bedlam” Traditional English folksong
**: Modification, “Master and Slave” by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
***: Modification/alteration of private journal entries written by Ayn Rand concerning William Edward Hickman, alias The Fox, convicted robber, kidnapper and murderer.
****: Ayn Rand, Q &A Session following address to the graduating class at West Point, March 6, 1974, modified for Equestrian usage concerning Buffalo as opposed to the original context of Native Americans.
*****: Middle English transcription of the poem “The Cost of the crown” by Mercedes Lackey. Original lines follow.
The stars are very beautiful above the palace walls/ They shine with equal splendor still above far humbler halls/ I watch them from my window but their bright entrancing glow/ Reminds me of the freedom I gave up so long ago/ The royal circlet of braid gold rest lightly on my brow/ I once thought only of the rights this circlet would endow/ But once I took the crown to which I had been schooled and bred/ I found it heavy on the heart though light upon the head/ Although I am the head of state in truth I am the least/ The true queen knows her people fed before she sits to feast/ The good queen knows her people safe before she takes her rest/ Thinks twice and thrice and yet again before she makes request/ For they are all my children all that I swore to defend/ It is my duty to become both queen and trusted friend.
And the last two lines' translation is here.
Oh gods that dwell beyond the stars if you can hear my cry/ And if you have compassion let me send no more to die.